The 2020-21 NBA season has been filled with twists and turns for Daniel Theis. Having grown accustomed to being the lone big for the Boston Celtics during his breakout season last year, he had to recalibrate once Brad Stevens opted to pair him with Tristan Thompson in the starting front court.
Fewer of Theis’ shots have come within proximity of the basket. He’s had to begin expanding his range, launching more threes and mid-range jumpers in an attempt to offer the Celtics some semblance of spacing.
The results have been mixed. Boston’s offense was roughly the same whether Theis played or sat. Their defense was slightly better in his absence.
Only recently has Theis been able to string together several quality performances. Heading into Tuesday’s battle in Golden State, he had played more than 20 minutes in three of Boston’s previous four games, where he averaged 16.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a night and was a combined plus-62 in 86 minutes of action.
In a 111-107 win over the Warriors, Theis was at it again in large part because the Dubs lacked the resources to keep him from making a significant impact. James Wiseman was out with a sprained right wrist. Kevon Looney played just 13 minutes before spraining his left ankle late in the second quarter.
Without much resistance, Theis scored eight points while recording a steal and an emphatic block on Juan Toscano-Anderson. More impressively, he grabbed a season-high 11 rebounds and was a whopping plus-24 in 28 minutes to help Boston snap a two-game losing streak.
If Theis managed to pace both teams in plus/minus without even cracking double-digit scoring, you know he made his mark at the defensive end.
No Celtic topped his defensive rating of 84.7 in this game. He rotated well when Golden State penetrated the paint and offered steady resistance when they challenged him at the rim.
As many numbers as we have that quantify defensive impact, I’m not sure we’ll ever fully grasp the true value of communication. It’s a necessary component to the success of any defense, yet amid the chaos of live action, it’s clouded in subtlety that makes it difficult to spot in real time.
Theis is typically the last line of Boston’s defense, which means the task falls on him to point out opposing sets and instruct teammates where they must be to stop them. In the final seconds of the first half, Theis offers Grant Williams an indicator of Stephen Curry’s arrival off a Toscano-Anderson pin down, allowing Williams to react early, fight over the screen and block one of the most unblockable jumpers in NBA history to preserve the 52-all tie.
He deflected four passes and contested eight of Golden State’s two-point attempts, both team-highs. Effort plays like those help explain how someone who posted the lowest usage rate among the starters nearly managed to double up the next closest teammate in plus/minus in 10 fewer minutes — Jayson Tatum at plus-13 in 38 minutes.
It wasn’t all defense for Theis in this one though. He made one of the most crucial plays to help the Celtics secure a victory. Up by four with 1:37 left in the game but just 1.6 remaining on the shot clock, Theis carved out enough space near the basket for a well-placed Tatum lob pass that wound up earning him two free throws.
Comparably important to the end of a two-game slump was the early momentum this win manifested as the Celtics embark on another four games out west. Up next is the Sacramento Kings, the team with the worst defense in the league. It’s the perfect matchup for Theis to maintain the contributions that the Celtics are pleased to see come with more consistency.